Britain and Russia's Tentative Warming Trend ; President Putin Is in London This Week in an Historic Visit by a Russian Leader

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When Vladimir Putin awoke this morning in the Belgian Suite of Buckingham Palace, he could be forgiven for briefly wondering where he was.

Not since 1874, when Queen Victoria was in full pomp and Tsar Alexander II was liberating serfs, has a Russian leader been invited to make an official state visit - the highest honor that Britain can bestow on a foreign leader.

For Mr. Putin, the accolade is a timely public-relations coup. The sight of the Russian tricolor's red, white and blue fluttering over the Mall as Putin lords it in an open carriage with the Queen will augment his presidential aura at a very convenient moment, with elections looming next year.

But beyond the ceremonial pleasantries, Putin's four-day stay in London will be colored by more contentious matters of geopolitics.

Anglo-Russia relations, so robust in Putin's early years in power, have darkened under the clouds of the Iraq war and the furor over nuclear proliferation in Iran. The two issues have put the once- chummy relationship between Putin and Prime Minister Tony Blair under considerable strain. Mr. Blair was the first Western leader to visit Putin after his election win three years ago, but when Blair returned to Russia in April he was openly mocked by Putin because of the failure to find Saddam Hussein or weapons of mass destruction.

Official talks here will last just 30 minutes - a piece of protocol that some view as a reciprocal snub by Blair - and Putin is in no mood for compromise.

Having resolutely opposed the war that Britain waged with the United States in Iraq, Putin is now determined not to be muscled out of the peace. He insists that pre-war contracts with Iraq signed by oil giant LukOil be upheld by the provisional authority in the country. He also wants Iraq's former debts to Moscow, thought to be worth more than $8 billion, to be repaid.

On Iran, where Russia is helping build an atomic power plant, Putin denies that Russia is helping proliferate dangerous nuclear technology and is staunchly defending Russia's economic interests.

"We are against the option of using the subject of Iran's potential nuclear program as a way of squeezing Russian companies out of the Iranian market," Putin told the BBC in a pre-visit interview.

For Blair, hosting the Russian president presents prickly problems of its own. Putin has earned a reputation in the West as a firm-but-fair reformer - a tag that sometimes seems at odds with his domestic policies, particularly where press freedoms and Chechnya are concerned.

"Putin is a multifaceted figure," says Professor Archie Brown of Oxford University. "He is undoubtedly a Westernizer, but on domestic political matters it's a mixed bag. The mass media are less free than they were and Chechnya remains a colossal problem which he doesn't seem to be anywhere close to resolving."

On Sunday the Russian government shut down the country's only remaining independent television station with a national reach - and replaced it with a sports channel. …